Stuff I’ve Been Reading

It’s been a while. Been a very busy summer. Family vacation as we do every year. Reunions with family after the lockdown. Tears when hugging aunts and uncles. New job, new digs, lots of change. Lots of writing too! Less time for reading, but I always have a couple books going. I read a little bit a day, and it’s something I really can’t do without! Here’s what’s going on right now and I am truly thrilled with each of these very different reading experiences.

Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise, by Scott Eyman
I love Scott Eyman’s writing. He’s very good here on the development of Grant’s persona – how HE did all of it – pruning, trimming, making choices, his instincts were so right on for himself – and how there was always that whiff of darkness, of EDGE about him. I’m a little disappointed in Eyman’s dismissal of the sexuality rumors. To people to point to all of his wives, I would say “Have you ever heard of bisexuality? OR of the closet?” At the end of the day, we can never know for sure. But there is certainly enough evidence – not just gossip or rumors or sneers – but first-hand comments from people he actually knew – to not just dismiss it. I don’t understand why people would think this would tarnish his legacy or that we just want “everyone to be gay” and we “ruin everything”. I got a comment like that on my Bringing Up Baby essay for Criterion. The woman was truly irritated I mentioned it – and it was just a LINE – and it was relevant due to him screaming “I just went GAY all of a sudden.” You don’t think Grant himself was aware of what was going on and what was out there about him? It at LEAST needs to be mentioned as part of the mix when we discuss him.

Sex and Rage: A Novel, by Eve Babitz
2021 has been the Year of Eve Babitz. I mean, she really “arrived” (for the second time), when NYRB Classics started bringing out all of her books recently. Her heyday as a writer was the 1970s (although she continued on into the 80s). She wrote it all, although her main topics were 1. herself 2. Los Angeles 3. rock ‘n roll. She wrote novels and memoirs (although for her the line is blurry) and journalism and cultural pieces, etc. I’ve been reading all of it. I am so in love with her. I wrote about her more here. This is her novel with the bold attention-getting title. In high school, a guidance counselor asked her what she “wanted to do”, meaning career-wise. She answered, “Adventuress.” And that’s what she did. Many of these lightly fictionalized stories show up in Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company … but her prose is so specific and so much fun to read it’s fine. She’s as addictive as Joan Didion, but in a very different way. I’ve got my Canon of writers/essayists/cultural-commentators … and they’re all so different from one another – Joan Didion, Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches, David Foster Wallace, Ellen Willis … it’s their mix of genres I respond to so strongly. They do not write from a remove. They are in the THICK of it and they let you know – in their own unique ways – how much they give a shit. They aren’t “objective”. Also, they aren’t afraid to incorporate themselves in their cultural commentary – but not so much “here is what I felt when I was 6 years old …” They all do some of that, too, but it’s not their primary mode. I get tired of memoir-writing. And hell I did a lot of it myself (and I am about to link to a bunch of it. Ya ready?)

So Sex and Rage is clearly a memoir dressed up as a novel and it’s so entertaining. It’s about a young woman named Jacaranda who lives for surfing, and she spends her time painting surfboards and selling them. A beach bum. And surrounded by a swirl of men. She joins up with a bunch of really rich people who lounge around the world going to the same French restaurants and think she’s fabulous, although she eventually feels like it’s all empty, and she envisions them as floating through life on a barge. She climbed onto the barge for a while, and eventually just had to get off that damn barge. I wrote about this in that first piece – she’s sometimes hard to excerpt because she sets up one image – like the barge – so you get the gist – and then she keeps coming back to it, weaving the barge into her imagery, so you remember what she’s setting up, she loops you back into her imagery, then she leaves it behind, then comes back to it … creating this whole tapestry. And it’s a very funny approach. It’s like “Oh God, she’s on the barge again …”

So I’m loving it. And then, suddenly, Jacaranda – by chance – runs into a guy she used to know. Someone not on the barge. Someone she knew as a teenager, or, 18, 19, 20. A fellow surfer. A gorgeous guy like a panther with bronze eyes who rode the waves, and they connected without even trying.

And suddenly there’s this:

And I had to put the book down. It’s so perfect. It sliced through me to the core. She DOES that. She has a GIFT for putting these ephemeral ethereal ineffable (whatever) not just thoughts and feelings but emotional observations of things that are very hard to put into words … into words. And when she does that, it is a gift, because it hands you back to yourself your own ephemeral ethereal ineffable experiences into words, and then you can hold them, grasp them. Like Emine says so perfectly

That’s why we seize the moment, and try to freeze it and own it
Squeeze it and hold it, ’cause we consider these minutes golden

And, look, I’m that kind of writer too. These are the things I like to write about, or TRY to. Not the peak moments, but the little moments. Sometimes I think I do it well. But there’s something about that passage that is almost surgical in its accuracy, and it’s weird to talk about accuracy when you’re talking about this weird feeling you have that someone “gets you.” But it’s the hardest thing to write about and it’s hard to say it in just 12 words: “the one who was there when she first knew what she liked.” WOW.

I had a relationship like this with the most unexpected kind of person but I’d never put it into words quite like this – and I’ve written a ton about him! How he climbed through my bedroom window at 2 in the morning (repeatedly), how he nursed me through my 103-degree fever by making me take a bath in ice water and then ordering French fries and turning on The Verdict (lol), and how he “Tsk Tsk”-ed me disapprovingly once and how that changed everything. “The one who was there when she first knew what she liked.” Not everyone has a relationship like this and I’m grateful it happened to me because I think on some level it kept me from having Bitterness as my default personality mode. I have my bitter moments but it’s not my Go To. So I am grateful to him for being the kind of guy where nothing had to be explained and explaining things would have ruined it anyway and we were young(ish) – at least at the start – but we both understood without having to say it out loud. He was there when I first knew what he liked. You don’t forget a person like that.

This has been a treatise on What Reading Eve Babitz Feels Like To Me.

My Century, a conversation between Aleksandr Wat and Czeslaw Milosz
How on earth did this extraordinary book never come on my radar before? It’s so up my alley in every possible way I’m almost irritated nobody ever told me about it before. There is always more to learn! I think Robert Kaplan referenced it in Marco Polo’s World, which I just read, and I immediately put THAT book down and ordered the OTHER book. Get it into my hands now. First of all, there’s the Czeslaw Milosz favor. I love him. I read his The Captive Mind earlier this year. But I was not familiar with Aleksandr Wat, a poet, writer, and editor, who got caught up in the pincers of totalitarian mindsets in Poland in the 20s/30s. Like many at the time, he was a fervent Communist, and had a Utopia version of Russia’s “experiment”, and anything that detracted from his fantasy was ignored, he turned a blind eye. But then he paid enormous prices, including imprisonment, long separation from his wife and son (also imprisoned), he was shipped off to one of the Central Asian ‘stans – or maybe his wife was? I haven’t gotten that far yet. A horrific life, really. And then the total Stalinization of Poland, which he also experienced. He finally emigrated. He had to. SO. Wat had been invited to California by the Center for Slavic Studies, basically to give him space, time, and funds, to write his memoirs. But he couldn’t seem to write. So the Center sent Milosz over, to converse with him, to try to get the ball rolling. Milosz was the generation after, but he knew the territory very VERY well. This book is basically a transcription of the conversations they had, about fascism, communism, Russia, Poland, Mayakovsky, delusions, reality, the whole roiling madness of the 1930s. Every single page is so dense with detail but if you’re even semi-familiar with the period, and all the in-fighting on the Left in the 30s, much of it will feel eerily familiar. He talks a lot about the need for a God, and how religions had crumbled, and so Lenin became a God. He also talks about the need for people to group up, to become a “brotherhood”, but he also observes that any “brotherhood” is usually a brotherhood against something. Wat comes by his cynicism (I would call it realism) honestly. He LIVED it. None of this is abstract. None of this is ideological. He considers abstractions and ideologies to be poisons. I’m not even that far into the book but I am in awe of it already.

The Pull of the Stars: A Novel, by Emma Donoghue
My brother-in-law gave this to me for Christmas and I am just now getting around to it. It’s fantastic! I can’t put it down. If I actually had a whole day free, I could probably finish it in a day, because once you start you can’t stop. It’s about a young Irish nurse in 1918, working in the maternity ward of a hospital in Dublin, a hospital overrun with patients suffering from this weird intense “flu”. They’re suffering so much that they’re dying in droves. Because the hospital is overrun with flu patients, there are no more beds, supplies, even doctors – so this nurse has to struggle to deal with the patients under her care, all of whom are on the verge of giving birth, while ALSO struggling with this terrifying flu. This book was written before the Pandemic. I think it came out in 1918. So it feels very very relevant to our world right now. It’s also Dublin in the aftermath of the Easter Rising – the country still totally shaken up. Into this Nurse’s world comes a doctor – a lady doctor – who arrives to help out. She comes with all kinds of rumors attached to her – that she was a revolutionary involved in the Easter Rising, she was a gun-runner, she was deported – etc. I am not sure if there are any truths to these rumors because I haven’t got there yet, but she’s already such an interesting character. And I love the other characters too. I am loving this novel.

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2 Responses to Stuff I’ve Been Reading

  1. Bill Wolfe says:

    A recommendation – unsolicited, so forgive my presumptuousness – of a book I think you’d enjoy. I found it tremendous, and I don’t think it’s simply because its subject is so dear to my heart. Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues, by Joel Selvin. The scope is remarkable, while at the same time Selvin’s ability to define small moments and seemingly peripheral characters in a few deft words is riveting. (He gets the big moments and epic characters right, too.) I just finished it, knowing I will certainly read it again in the not-too-distant future. Happily, I can now start his Hollywood Eden, about the rock’n’roll and R&B music scene in Los Angeles during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

    • sheila says:

      Of course it’s not presumptuous!! I post these things and love to hear what people are reading and I’m always looking for recs.

      That book sounds great!

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